We just had the pleasure of interviewing Mathias Kohlschmidt and Martin Gruhn, the founders of Maya3D. Together with their team of programmers, 3D artists, and historians they have recreated several ancient Maya cities in 3D and turned this into a series of interactive iOS TimeTours apps. These apps are meant to serve as both an educational instrument and an on-site travel guide at the same time. We believe that initiatives like this show us a glimpse of how the future of history education might look like.
AHE: Thank you for taking the time for this interview. Your iOS apps are truly impressive in how they give an insight into the world of the ancient Maya civilization. Could you please tell us how you got the idea of creating an app that recreates important Maya sites on iOS devices?
Thanks, glad you like them! It started when I sent a mail to Maya 3D asking for cooperation, as with interest in the Mayas as well as 3D reconstructions, we just had to join forces.
The idea for the apps came when Adobe announced it would be possible to develop native iOS Apps using Flash (an environment we were familiar with), which Apple then forbid just when we had our first prototype running.
AHE: While we have tested your apps, most of our readers probably havent. Please tell us your perspective: What are your apps about and what makes them so unique?
They are for one classical guidebooks to the sites of Chichen Itza, Uxmal and others. Every temple and structure is described with additional info on connected Maya topics. But what they were made for is direct connection between what the ruins look today and what they looked at the hightime of the (Maya) civilization.
AHE: Why did you choose to make apps on the Maya, instead of the more classical civilizations such ancient Rome, Greece, or Egypt?
You name 3 civilizations I planned most of our travels around in the last decade. I love to traverse the ancient sites. The Mayas hooked me from the day I first saw a photo of the Temple of the Sun in the early morning fog many years ago.
And the mayan Culture is maybe still the most mysterious and unexplored. Therefore it needs a lot of imagination & reasearch to rebuild their architecture. This is what inspires my reconstruction work.
AHE: Out of curiosity, what impresses you most about the Maya?
The obvious impressive thing would be their knowledge about astronomy. What sets them apart for me is the style of their art and architecture and their strange beliefs. For example the roman pantheon is pretty down to earth compared to the gods of the Maya.
Of course their astronomical and mathematical knowledge, which was more accurate than in Europe at the same time, but even more the fact that they obviously developed their high culture without any huge influence from other civilizations. Some kind of Atlantis. No one really knows where they came from and their demise is still a mystery, even if their are many theories.
AHE: Your apps are clearly designed to be used on site, while standing between the ruins of Maya cities. Would you say that they have more than a touristic interest? Have they been used for educational purposes?
They have been used in schools! Besides that from time to time we get a bulk order using educational discounts, so they are used at other schools too, unfortunately there is no direct feedback what school/institution got them.
TimeTours apps are foremost marketed as travel apps. But the Maya app combining the sites of Chichen, Uxmal and Palenque will be marketed in the education category. It will feature a 52 episode Maya comic and will cover all facts of maya life.
AHE: What are the backgrounds of your team members? Have you got experts on board who help you with historical accuracy?
The background of our german core team is rather computers and 3D graphics, but even without a degree in history I really think we are experts when it comes to Maya architecture. Texts are done by an archaeology graduate and now tourist guide in mexico and a retired history teacher in Dallas.
My background is the interest in ancient cultures and the opportunity to recreate and show them as not seen for a long long time. To model a building you dont need to be an architect you just need the blueprints. And with the internet and the library of the Ibero-American-Institute I have the most up-to-date and the most comprehensive sources.
AHE: Your recconstructions of the Maya sites go far beyond just showing pictures or simple 3D models. You manage to display these ancient buildings in all their colourful splendour, with quite an eye for detail. What sources did you use to recreate in 3D the ancient sites of Chichén Itzá and Uxmal?
Our reconstructions are based on a lot of research. We use the most recent floorplans and GPS- measurements for the shape of a building and drawings made by early explorers for the depiction of the frescoes. Sculptures and ornamental decorations are modeled from photos and again early drawings. I often complete those old drawings of frescos and then color them in Photoshop so they can be used as textures.
The colors actually need the most guesswork! We based our color schemes on theories of archaeologists, but it changes over time (like Palenque has darker reds now they found new remains of old colors). Chichen Itza was to a good degree based on the waterpaintings of Adela Breton.
AHE: Could you please tell us a bit more about how these apps are created - what technologies do you use, and what does it take to create such an app? What proved to be the most difficult to recreate digitally?
The apps are written in Objective C in the Cocoa development environment using XCode. That names the main difficulty, as these meant as little to us as to most of your readers. We had some programming experience, but learning this stuff was quite an uphill climb.
Recreating the temples, which is Mathias job, isnt that much of a technical challenge, mostly hard work. And most of that is finding the source material and filling that with guesswork, as he already described.
And our aim was to design apps that combine information with the fun of an educational computer game. We want to make it a great experience for hobby archaeologists, tourists and students.
AHE: With all this work, is creating historical apps your full-time job, or is it more of a side project?
Historical & travel apps are a niche you cant make a living off, at least not easily. And sure not with apps as complex as these. On the plus side, these are not short-lived and with more of them to come we can dream about focusing all of our time on them.
I try to focus on this as well as animating the models for documentaries, which are mostly shown at museums. But I still need to design and model other stuff so I can pay my monthly dues.
AHE: Are you exclusively focussing on the Maya, or are you currently working on apps on other ancient cities?
The trilogy of the Maya apps will be completed with Palenque and then we publish a collection of those three. Next stop: Rome. Or more precisely Pompeii, which might turn into a trilogy together with Gerasa and Conimbriga.
AHE: Do you think that the iPad and other tablet devices will have an impact on how we teach history?
Definitely! You dont get the kids with dry facts, and while documentaries with 3D animations already give a very good insight they miss the interaction. But interactive educational apps are not limited to history or the TimeTours apps.
AHE: Thank you for this interview, its been a pleasure. We are looking forward to seeing your next creations!
Thank you too. There are still a lot of cultures to revive and a lot of ideas to realize.